Science is always working on new ways to make our world a little better to live in. We’ve made huge strides in how we resource and use materials to allow a world full of buildings, iPhones, cars, toys, and all the other stuff that we use in our lifetimes. The pursuit for better materials is something that many scientists take quiet seriously. Recently some researchers found a way to make something smaller while making it much stronger. How do scientists make stronger materials? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.
A famous American poet once said that “we are li-ving-in a material world” and that’s so true! We surround ourselves by the built world where different materials matter a lot! Which is why some scientists are working on how to make materials lighter and smaller while others are working on how to make things tougher and stronger….and occasionally they stumble upon something very fascinating.
Recently, some material scientists found a way to make something 10 times lighter while making it twelve times stronger! What is this mystery material? Well, it was wood. To dig into this story we must first start with lignin, it’s the part of the wood that makes it brown in color but it's also makes the wood rigid. The curious thing here is that scientists had to find the balance of the right amount to leave in the wood. Removing all the lignin or having too much on there did not help them at all, but like Goldilocks, the right amount did the trick. By removing just the right amount of lignin these scientists noticed the wood did something very interesting. They warmed it up at 150F which causes the cellulose fibers to become tightly packed. Doing this also does away with knots, holes, or other imperfections in the wood.
This makes it five times thinner than it’s original size, but it also tightly compresses all those fibers together which form strong hydrogen bonds! Meaning, that wood aint budging! To test the newly treated wood they shot bullet-like projectiles at the treated wood. These projectiles went straight through normal wood, but this compressed wood was able to stop them.
Now testing will continue in hopes of allowing this compressed wood to eventually make it to the market! The team working on this said this compressed wood could be used for buildings, vehicles, airplanes, anything where you need something light and sturdy! What a cool science story right? It’s fun to talk about it because it’s such great material!